By Kristin E. Holmes
The Philadelphia Inquirer.
By 10 a.m. on another jam-packed day, the woman responsible for organizing the conference that will bring Pope Francis to Philadelphia has finished a morning workout, answered a slew of emails, ushered her twins off to school, and met with the Secret Service.
Donna Crilley Farrell, 51, executive director of the World Meeting of Families, sweeps through her office doors and into the next meeting, 113 days from the pontiff’s scheduled arrival.
“Wow,” Farrell says as she looks over the age breakdown of volunteers already signed up for the conference. “Go, 80-year-olds.”
Since she took on the task of overseeing a conference expected to bring an estimated 15,000 to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and more than 1.5 million to see the pope, the former communications director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has had little downtime.
“It’s 180 mph,” said Farrell, sitting in her chilly office at archdiocesan headquarters in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood. “I could meet with our heads of departments every day. There’s constant updating.”
Farrell leads a 15-committee organization with staff members and a corps of consultants who are overseeing every logistical component of the World Meeting of Families, set for Sept. 22-25, and Pope Francis’ visit. The pontiff is scheduled to attend a family festival Saturday, Sept. 26, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and lead Sunday Mass the next day outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The archdiocesan team is dealing with issues including transportation (5,000 buses may travel to the city), lodging (the team needs host families, one of Farrell’s biggest concerns at the moment), communication (conference delegates from 150 nations are expected), the media (5,000 to 7,000 journalists are coming) and security (the Secret Service, in charge of security, meets daily with local, state and federal government agencies).
“This is once in a lifetime,” Farrell said. “How many people get any opportunity to work on something like this?”
Farrell’s schedule is chock-full of meetings with the event’s board of directors, committee leaders, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, and archdiocesan bishops.
Her biggest worry? Whatever is on her plate at the moment. Anxiety sets in when uncertainty arises, Farrell said.
More than 5,000 of the 10,000 volunteers needed have signed up. Farrell is comfortable with the progress, 29 volunteers are 80 and over, but more are needed.
The thousands of charter and private buses expected will have to be officially registered and their drivers certified.
“We don’t know how many buses are coming,” Farrell said.
The role of organizer-in-chief is a responsibility that Farrell admits would not appear to be a predictable next step for a woman who began her career as a television reporter and later worked in church and corporate communications.
But World Meeting of Families president Robert J. Ciaruffoli says she is the best pick. He interviewed her for the post.
Ciaruffoli lauded her communication skills, calling them important assets in organizing an event for which dissemination of information is critical. Farrell’s previous job with the archdiocese and her knowledge of the Catholic Church in the United States and the Vatican were also bonuses.
“Part of her management style is reaching out to various constituencies, making sure she understands the issues, everybody’s needs, and how a particular decision will impact others,” Ciaruffoli said. “And then, she just has a unique way of making people feel good about themselves.”
Farrell is quick to give credit to an experienced team that she says knows the answer when she doesn’t, along with Chaput’s “leadership and vision.” She also says her time as the archdiocese’s communications director “prepared her to handle anything.”
During that time, beginning in 1999, she dealt with a series of critical events, including the closing of schools, the arrest of an archdiocesan finance officer and the clergy sex abuse scandal.
Farrell says there were days when reporters would call, and she would hang up the phone and cry.
“It was hard,” she said.
By 2012, the job “had taken a toll” and Farrell left the archdiocese and landed at Independence Blue Cross as manager of external affairs.
The turmoil didn’t shake her faith, however, Farrell said.
“My faith is not in human beings,” Farrell said. “I would hope the actions of human beings would not shake my faith in God.”
Farrell and her younger brother Jack grew up in Springfield, Pa., the children of the late Jack Crilley Sr., a painter, and Joan Crilley, 80, a retired administrative assistant.
She describes the Crilleys as a “typical Catholic, family” that attended church regularly.
Jack Crilley Sr. died last year at 87. Farrell recently began using her maiden name with her married name as a tribute to her father, who sometimes lamented in moments of paternal pride: “Nobody knows you’re my kid.”
A 1982 graduate of Cardinal O’Hara High School in Marple Township, Farrell earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Pennsylvania .
She worked as an NBC page and production assistant on TV shows such as “Saturday Night Live” before covering the news as a TV reporter in Wilkes-Barre and Philadelphia.
During those years, Farrell slacked off on her religious practice, but the encouragement of a devout landlady inspired her to reconnect with the church.
In the Mayor’s Reception Room last week, she comfortably moved among city officials, corporate executives and reporters during a news conference to announce that Aramark would supply souvenirs for the event.
Dressed in a red jacket, Farrell alternately whispered to Mayor Michael Nutter, started the applause at strategic moments, and helped out a baffled cameraman who wondered what to ask next.
“What kinds of things am I missing?” said the cameraman, focusing his lens on Farrell.
“The kinds of things we’re offering?” she suggested. Then, in mid-answer, a water bottle slipped from her hands and landed with a thud. Farrell didn’t flinch. She kept talking.
“To be able to organize anything like this, you have to be personable, be able to pull together the right team and have the organization skills,” said Jazelle M. Jones, a Philadelphia deputy managing director who is also the city liaison for the World Meeting of Families.
“Donna is thoughtful,” Jones said. “The details are the little things that get you to the big picture, and she sees.”
Back in the office, Farrell and Lizanne Magarity Pando, WMOF director of marketing and communications, lunched on matching salads while discussing news releases, Twitter hashtags and apps for bus drivers.
Farrell keeps photos of her husband, Michael T. Farrell, a lawyer; her children, Connor and Christina, 11, and of herself with Pope Francis in March, when she traveled to Rome with the city’s delegation to encourage Pope Francis to visit. Across the room, she keeps 13 pair of old shoes, from black pumps to pink sneakers, for a quick change when necessary.
Farrell plans to stay with the archdiocese through the end of the year. After that, she says, she is unsure where she’ll land.
But when her day is over, she goes home to Springfield. For Farrell, home equals stress relief, whether it’s a quick prayer and exercise in the morning or an evening walk with her twins. She also turns off the laptop, but only for a few hours. It’s a Farrell family rule: no electronics until homework is done.
Farrell says the job has had little effect on her family life.
When the children are asleep, the laptop lid comes up.
She usually goes to bed by about 10 p.m. She sometimes falls asleep to the sounds of an audio book, bringing an end to a workday that began at 4:45 a.m.
Then in seven hours, Farrell will start all over again.